Why broken trust requires new rules for therapy

Mistrust is a dead-end street for relationships

As relationship therapists, we strive to be even-handed and explore each partner’s contribution to the dynamics and difficulties that affect their relationship. However, when it comes to dealing with infidelity, I would argue that those rules don’t work very well. At least initially, it’s essential that the therapy is more focused on one person than the other. (For the sake of argument I’ll talk as if there are only two people in the relationship, but the same issues can apply in polyamorous relationships).

In an earlier blog, I suggested that infidelity was about someone knowingly breaking the relationship contract and then concealing that fact from their partner. By this definition, one of the key features of infidelity is that it is action taken unilaterally. One person is solely responsible for breaking the rules, doing it in a way that their partner had no chance to influence their choice.

One consequence of this unilateral action is that, when it is discovered, it creates a disproportionate level of vulnerability for the person whose trust has been betrayed (remember the definition of vulnerable is “more likely to be hurt”). If they wish the relationship to continue, they are forced to extend trust to someone who has been proven to be untrustworthy. It’s not surprising that people in this situation are frequently agitated, with disturbed sleep and erratic behaviour. They typically desperately and repetitively ask questions, seeking reassurance that their partner is unable to give, no matter how honestly they try and answer the questions.

In my experience, what is most likely to help someone in this situation settle down their mind and physiology is for the person who broke trust to make themselves vulnerable. Specifically by providing deep, psychologically coherent explanations for their choice to lie, cheat and deceive, coupled with a credible plan for dealing with the issues they uncover. To achieve this outcome, the initial phase of couple therapy following a major betrayal of trust can be seen as individual therapy with the contract breaker in the presence of the partner.

It’s not easy to get people who are full of guilt and shame to go deep and uncover their real motivations. They often want to “move on” to avoid engaging with painful insecurities and self-deception. Typically, they want the reassurance of immediate forgiveness the moment they apologise, rather than facing the inevitable long-term consequences of their behaviour. Sometimes they want to justify the infidelity by blaming their partner. It’s in situations like this that our ability to empathise with the underlying emotional pain and engage at that deeper level is essential to helping people restore trust. It’s the sort of work that typically is associated with individual therapy but can be powerfully healing in a relationship therapy context, post-infidelity.